College football hot seat: Will emotion or economics dictate firings this season?

Pete Thamel
·7-min read

Back in the late summer, when the chances of holding a college football season fluctuated by the day and all of higher education was in the throes of wholesale cost cutting, it was easy to project that this would be a slow year for college football coaching changes.

And here we are in the late fall — toward the end or the beginning of the season, depending on your location — and not much has changed with economic realities. Athletic departments are being gutted by layoffs, budgets crippled by a lack of ticket sales and universities as a whole bracing for months more of short-term pain. Downsizing is the new normal.

But as we head into the second full weekend of November football, one simple variable — a scoreboard — has called into question all of the preseason proclamations about athletic department austerity. The predictions of a slow year in coaching turnover are meeting the backlash of bad results (South Carolina), historic losses (Michigan) and late-game coaching negligence (Tennessee).

And it has set up a fascinating tension for the finishing kick of this most unusual football season. One industry source set the stakes this way: “What will rule the day at the end of the day, emotion or economics?”

For athletic directors, leading during the COVID-19 pandemic brings a new spin on an age-old athletic department conundrum: Can we afford to fire the coach? Can we afford the economic fallout of keeping the coach? And now, they have to consider: Can we handle the publicity for all the buyout and hiring costs?

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh runs off the field during warmups before a game on Jan. 1, 2020. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh runs off the field during warmups before a game on Jan. 1, 2020. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Those issues are magnified even greater in times of COVID-19, where optics from the campus side of a university would be brutal if tens of millions of dollars were spent for coaches to not work. Texas had been a popular speculation point until wins the past two weeks. But the contracts of Tom Herman and his assistant coaches show nearly $24 million in head coach and assistant coach buyout money. That’s a lot of brisket, even in non-pandemic times.

Auburn’s coach is always a two-game losing streak away from being in danger. But half of the $21.9 million owed to Gus Malzahn would need to be paid within 30 days. That number would scatter and smother any athletic department budget.

In fairness, openings at Southern Miss and Utah State were unexpected, which perhaps hints that we should expect more. Will the early season predictions of pragmatism get overrun by the overflowing passion inherent to in-season results?

“Now that we’re in it and you’re reading the headlines and scrolling through social media, I’d be less surprised if changes were made,” said Drew Turner, vice president of Collegiate Sports Associates. “If you look at it logically, it still doesn’t make sense.”

The only pandemic precedent at a Power Five school comes at Wake Forest. First-year athletic director John Currie fired Danny Manning in April, leading to something of a social experiment in running a search and integrating a new staff during a pandemic.

Currie pointed out that the biggest difficulty of maneuvering a search during a pandemic comes from the coach adjusting to a new school. Hiring a staff is complex, building relationships with a team is difficult and recruiting in this environment are all variables inherently complicated by the virus.

Currie pointed to a “confluence of circumstances” that include the expected new rule for immediate eligibility of transfers, the challenge of learning a new campus and the realization that a new coach wouldn’t meet any of the recruits in their first class in person. “It’s going to be inordinately more challenging for a coach taking over in this environment,” Currie said.

Will emotion and passion win out over common sense and economics? We’ll find out the next few weeks at these places.

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt reacts to a touchdown against Georgia on Oct. 10, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt reacts to a touchdown against Georgia on Oct. 10, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Tennessee Volunteers

When you hire an unqualified athletic director Part 1: You get what’s happening at Tennessee, where Phillip Fulmer bid against himself to give Jeremy Pruitt an extension and raise this offseason. It’s a classic move for a novice AD. On the West Coast they call this “pulling a Lynn Swann” for his Clay Helton extension. Pruitt’s buyout is more than $12.5 million, which considering the miserable state of Tennessee’s finances before the pandemic would seem to be untenable. But with Tennessee, emotion and meddling boosters have long won out over logic. The Vols are 2-4, and there’s a clear path to a 3-7 finish. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Tennessee the last dozen years, a complete administrative mess is the baseline expectation.

South Carolina Gamecocks

When you hire an unqualified AD Part 2: South Carolina’s exhaustive AD search ended down the hall with their baseball coach, a 1980s way of thinking that’s gotten them the predictable underwhelming results. The tell if South Carolina is motivated to fire Will Muschamp in 2020 will be if they oust Ray Tanner, the overmatched athletic director, in the next few weeks. If he’s abruptly ousted soon, South Carolina could in theory find a replacement to work with the new coach. But time is running out. They’ll also have to find more than $13 million to buy out Muschamp, who was Tanner’s pick as head coach. South Carolina has long lagged behind its SEC brethren in athletic department sophistication. Can president Bob Caslen, hired in 2019, pull all this off amid a pandemic? If 2-4 turns to 2-8 for the Gamecocks, they’ll be increasing noise to make moves. Hopelessness is expensive, too.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Is Vanderbilt finally institutionally motivated to have all the excellence built up with its academic brand carry over to athletics? If so, they’ll have an interesting choice to make with Derek Mason. He’s headed to his seventh consecutive losing season, and Vanderbilt is the quintessential test case for whether all the COVID variables — opt outs, etc. — will be used to judge a coach’s performance. Vanderbilt (0-5) is likely headed to 1-9 or 0-10. If the school wants to fundraise for facilities and sell an ambitious future, it’s difficult to do that with a coach coming off such a dismal season. There’s exponentially more buzz about this job than at the start of the year. Welcome to the big chair, Candice Storey Lee.

Illinois Fighting Illini

If the Illinois athletic department got a payout for every time Lovie Smith has been mentioned in a hot seat story, they’d be able to afford his $2.6 million buyout. Illinois is 0-3 and could feel some real heat with a loss to Rutgers this weekend. The fact that Rutgers is favored says about everything you need to know about the state of Illinois football. Could Illinois be savvy enough to take advantage of the slow market and make a hire without much competition? That would require foresight and ambition that they haven’t shown, which has led to this rut of uninspiring football.

Michigan Wolverines

We’ve spent a lot of time on Michigan, as Harbaugh’s coaching situation is the most compelling in college football. And maybe all of football. His NFL market dries up a bit more with each loss, but Michigan still doesn’t have the institutional desire to fire him. They’d owe him $6.3 million in a buyout to fire him, but that still seems unlikely. Harbaugh returning for a final season or some sort of mutually negotiated parting are still the most likely options. But if Michigan keeps playing this way, the pressure will only mount.

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